Barbara Quinn, RSCJ
Ps. 51: 3-4, 5-6b, 12-13, 14 and 17
2 Corinthians 5:2-6:2
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Lent has arrived! I imagine many of us take a deep breath, square our shoulders, and set our faces for six long and perhaps bleak weeks of fasting, rigorous penance, and somber prayer. That seems to be the language of our Ash Wednesday scriptures. Joel begins by speaking of weeping, mourning, fasting, rending garments and then closes with the plea, “Spare us, O Lord, your people!” Psalm 51 carries on with the confessional cry, “thoroughly wash me from guilt” and the lament, “my sin is before me always.” And then comes Matthew. Work hard to repent through almsgiving, prayer, and fasting and, by the way, don’t let on to others that you are being so virtuous. Soldier on as though this were your daily fare and that you enjoy every moment of it! ‘Tis a tall order and not terribly appealing to most of us, I venture to say.
There is a wonderful Hasidic tale told by Elie Wiesel that reinforces our resistance to such a regime but which also turns us around and invites us to reflect on the heart of this holy season.
If you think you can bring your people back into the fold by making them suffer,
then I, Leib, son of Rachel, swear to you that you will not succeed. So why try? Save
your children by giving them joy, by delivering them. By doing it that way, you have
nothing to lose and everything to gain.
God, the maker of human hearts, hardly wants us to suffer and surely understands our inclinations towards joy. The propensity for the fullness of life is ours because it is also God’s desire, we who are made in God’s image and likeness. And so we must look more deeply into the message of penance and self-sacrifice. God, more than any other, wants something deeper than acts of penance. God wants us! God desires friendship with us made of love and joy and peace and truth and all in a spirit of freedom!
Freedom is the operative word here. We humans resist coercion and oppression and rightly so. Neither is that God’s way with us. God does not violate our freedom. Another ancient tale might throw light on this profound truth.
A father and his young son lumbered along in their wagon through a fruit-filled forest
picking berries. The exuberant young boy periodically leaped from the wagon to gather
his treasures from the bushes lining the road. At one bend, he spotted the shining
fruit buried in the thick of the brush deep in the woods. Pleading with his father to allow
him to go in search, the kindly father smiled and nodded his head in agreement. But, he
said, keep calling my name and if you can’t hear my reply, run ahead with all your might
to find me. I will be waiting.
This is the prayer, fasting and penance to which we are invited during this holy season of Lent. We pray so that as we walk the highways and byways of our lives and work, we never stop listening for God’s voice who calls us without ceasing. We can stuff the gnawing emptiness of our loneliness with noise and activity, hoping to hide from a growing sense of restlessness or we can fast by undertaking a diet of periodic silence that allows us to be attuned to the peace that longs to nourish us. We can run in error from the search for our true selves by packing on layer after layer of defenses, eating and drinking and settling into complacency with life as it is. Or we can feast courageously on the truth and humility of who we are and who we can become, savoring the truth that God loves us no matter what. We can grow thin in our relationships by refusing to face the conflicts and misunderstandings that make us anemic or we can sacrifice our false pride and our insecurity and sit down at the table with those we care about, stubborn in our desire to love and forgive.
The Church invites us to renew our friendship with the Triune God, the Holy Community of Persons whose best name is Love. As Pope Francis notes in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.”
Now that is a treasure for which fasting, prayer, and penance is worth the price. Let us begin the feast again today!